The First American President lives in the White House
- 1st November 1800 -
After the inauguration of George Washington as President in 1789 plans were made to design and build a President’s house in a federal district of the capital, alongside the Potomac River. A competition was run for the design, won by the Anglo-Irish architect James Hoban. He modelled his creation on Leinster House in Dublin, which had been the seat of the Dukes of Leinster and now holds the Irish Parliament. The cornerstone was laid on October 13th 1792 and over the next 8 years a team of enslaved and freed African Americans and European immigrants built the sandstone structure. These included Irish and Italian stone and plaster workers as well as Scottish masons. When it was complete it was coated in a lime-based whitewash in 1798, thus giving it its sobriquet. The total cost of the 2-storey building was $232,372. Before Theodore Roosevelt (1901 – 1909) it was simply given the rather functional name - ‘The Executive Mansion’.
The first President to live there, with his family, was John Adams (1797-1801). He moved in on 1st November 1800. He wrote a letter to his wife and in that letter he wrote a prayer. “I pray Heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this House and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.” Prophetic words indeed. Later on Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933 – 1945) had this prayer carved into the mantel of the state dining room.
Thomas Jefferson (1801 – 1809) entered a few months later and added two water closets and with the architect Benjamin Latrobe, two bookending terrace porticos. In August 1814 the British burnt it to the ground and there were thoughts of re-locating the capital. However James Hoban was brought back to re-build it and President James Madison re-entered it in 1817 adding beautiful French furniture. South and North porticos were added in 1824 and 1829 respectively while John Quincy Adams (1825-1829) created the first flower garden. Millard Fillmore (1850-1853) put in a library in the second floor oval room.
The 31st President, William Taft (1909 – 1913), hired architect Nathan Wyneth to expand the executive wing creating the first Oval Office, the President’s working space. A fire in 1929 during Herbert Hoover’s time (1929 – 1933) destroyed this wing however and the repairs were still happening during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. The latter extended the executive wing, which was now being called the ‘West Wing’ – the idea being that the residence and the office space was kept separate. The renowned architect Eric Gugler doubled the space in this area and an indoor swimming pool was created for Roosevelt to help with his treatment of polio. The Oval Office was now moved to the South-East corner. A new East wing was added in 1942, which contained a cinema, or ‘Movie Theater’ [sic].
The presidency of Harry Truman (1945- 1953) saw major structural changes including the installation of floor bearing steel beams and a new concrete foundation. The interior was ripped out and re-planned with the staterooms all re-designed and the 2nd and 3rd floors were re-decorated. Richard Nixon (1969 – 1974) had a bowling alley added in the underground section in 1969. As well as this underground there is also a ‘Situation Room’ where the President can meet with advisors in a time of crisis, a flower shop, carpenter’s studio and a dental practice. Jimmy Carter (1977 – 1981) installed the first computer and laser printer and the internet was introduced by George H.W. Bush (1989-1993) in 1992. At the end of each month the President is given a bill for his personal food and expenses – everything from dry cleaning to toothpaste – and this is deducted from his salary.
Overall the White House has 132 rooms on 6 floors with a total area of 55,000 square feet. It has 35 bathrooms, 412 doors, 147 windows, 28 fireplaces, 8 staircases and 3 lifts. It would also take 570 gallons of paint to cover the whole of the outside surface. In one of the bathrooms, the Lincoln Bedroom, Winston Churchill is said to have seen the ghost of President Lincoln, standing by the fireplace, when he emerged from his bath. There is another story that goes with Churchill staying at the White House. It is said that when he was walking down one of the many corridors in a bathrobe an American G.I. who was rather the worse for drink, came around the corner. He did not recognise Churchill and said to him,”Oi, fatso, where’s the john [lavatory]? Churchill looked him up and down and then finally responded with, “If you turn right at the end of this corridor you will see a sign on the left saying ‘Gentlemen’, but don’t let this put you off.”
The White House receives more than 30,000 visitors each week and is the only private residence of a head of state that is open to the public free of charge. Who will be its next famous resident next year?